SAD art

When I’m anxious, I try to make my world small.

I have lists of people, places and things that will keep me safe and comfortable — anything that doesn’t qualify is uncharted territory. I like to avoid any situation that stirs up panic.

Moments when I am presented with the opportunity to step out and choose not to do something because of my anxiety are always followed by regret. Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. As relieving as it is to be in control of the moment, the happiness gained from successfully evading all danger and discomfort is often short-lived and disappointing. Worse yet, the more I say “no” to potentially fruitful opportunities, the easier it becomes to remain in my small world.

Since elementary school, I’ve struggled with anxiety disorders that keep me scrambling to find a comfort zone. I want to believe there’s a way for me to control my heart palpitations by playing it safe, but the panicky feeling still comes in suffocating waves. My bubble often isn’t as peaceful as I regularly convince myself, so what do I do? I redraw the boundary lines and try again. Each time I let a potential panic attack dictate where I can and can’t go, my world grows a little smaller. The cycle could continue forever.

Though I may be an especially anxious person, I think everyone feels limited by a pang in their chest — that tight, wobbly feeling of dread. We think staying between the lines and following our rules of safety will prevent our stomach from tangling itself in knots. Often our “no” makes us feel relieved in the moment, so we shrink our comfort zones and live in them. We’re given a false sense of peace by stopping ourselves from doing something we wanted to do, only to feel frustrating regret later.

Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.

And as unpleasantly restricting as the feeling is, fear serves a biological purpose. The alarm bells ringing in our minds are what make us think twice before doing something dangerous or life-threatening. Those of us with chronic anxiety, however, are living with alarms that ring and screech at random, refusing to turn off and begging us to evacuate the building without a fire in sight.

All of our alarm bells occasionally toll without reason. Even if you don’t suffer from a chronic anxiety disorder, you’ve likely avoided an exciting opportunity for the sake of comfort — listening to your sweaty palms and not your own reasoning. Maybe if your hands wouldn’t have been so shaky, knees wobbly or face flushed, you would’ve done it.

But after living with persistent anxiety, I’ve learned I can thrive in many different circumstances even when I feel anxious. I can’t control the pounding in my chest, but I’m still free to say “yes” or “no,” even when the feeling refuses to leave.

My world will never be small, safe or comfortable enough to get rid of my anxiety, no matter what my mind wants to tell me. I can’t let my anxiety rule my life because it follows no logic. When anxiety sits in the driver’s seat, it gives irrational demands to make our world smaller.

So, chronically anxious or not, if you want to do something scary, do it scared.

Don’t wait until you’re unafraid, as that is not a guarantee. Don’t let your world be small, safe and cozy. Be terrified and brave, knowing the two words aren’t antonyms, and make your world full of vastly new opportunities that challenge your boundaries.

And if you’re like me, struggling to keep calm in the day-to-day, know it isn’t a small feat when you’ve made it to class despite how anxious you feel. In fact, you’re incredibly brave for choosing to not let a panic attack determine the outcome of your day. 

Stop letting your fear hinder you and continue on, frightened and stubborn.

Keep your world big by doing the things that scare you the most, and in some ways, the scary things will become easier. Give yourself time to breathe, but never stop practicing bravery. The last thing you want is to wake up and realize you’ve made your world so small nothing fits in it anymore.